ENnies: What am I Looking For?

Hello, folks! Sorry I missed posting last week. It’s a busy time for me right now. As some of you will know, I became an ENnies judge this year, which has been an interesting experience so far. Before this year I would have said I read a lot of TTRPG material, but that’s nothing compared to the sheer volume of material I have read to stay on top of all the entries to the ENnie Awards. That’s not a complaint, more an observation on my previous limited understanding of what “a lot” actually means in the context of TTRPG publishing. Also, consuming game books and other resources with a critical eye as opposed to just for fun, definitely stretches some brain muscles.

I posted about the ENnies over on my personal blog yesterday, but today I thought I would give you an idea of the sort of things I look for as a judge. This isn’t a complete list of my criteria, what I’m sharing today would be more of what I look for in a first pass, before I dig more deeply into whatever resource I’m reading. And I’m focusing mostly on the books (including e-books), as they comprise the majority of our submissions.

First Impressions: Before I even crack the book open I look it over, read the cover and any back matter. Is the title of the book legible? Does the back matter tell me enough about what’s inside? How is the art, and does the cover layout work with or against it? Is there anything on the spine art that might grab my eye? For physical books, I’m trying to get a sense of what my first impressions would be if I saw the book on a shelf in my FLGS. For PDFs, is there anything that will catch my eye as I scroll through the selections on, say DriveThruRPG or DMs Guild?

Construction: Of course this is just for physical submissions, but I look at how the book (or terrain, or accessory) is put together. Does it have a solid binding? Are the page edges spaced properly from the spine? Are the pages matte or glossy, and is the paper decent quality? I look to see if it has “nice-to-haves” like ribbons to mark pages. I want a sense of whether the book will stand up well to the normal wear and tear of being a gaming resource, or if it’s going to fall apart the fifth time the GM totes it along to a session.

Layout: Now we start to get into the guts of the submission. There are a bunch of little details I could list off, but they all come down to one big question: is the book easy to read? Artistic goals aside, this is first and foremost a game resource, and players/GMs have to be able to navigate the product in a non-frustrating way. So I look for things like: a Table of Contents and index that are easy to follow; clearly marked chapters and well thought out chapter order; art and design which contributes to the readability instead of fighting with it. I’m also an editor, so I look hard at that.

Design: This overlaps in many ways with the layout, enough so that I am often evaluating both at the same time. For this, I look less at the words themselves and more at how the book is arranged. Do the design elements enhance the book’s usefulness, or do I have to read in spite of them? Same question for the art. Also, does the art help me understand the material presented, or is it merely decoration? Don’t get me wrong, impressive art is impressive art. But in a game book, it could also have utility.

Accessibility: I don’t currently have any accessibility issues when it comes to game resources, but a significant portion of the hobby does have one or more. I think it’s well past time for publishers to try and get ahead of the curve, in order to make sure everyone is able to enjoy our hobby. I don’t expect that switch to happen overnight. But there are simple things publishers can start doing now, such as: using larger, rather than smaller font sizes; using fonts friendlier to folks with reading disabilities; colour-coding and use of symbols to go along with the text, for folks with reading disabilities but also for folks with colour-blindness. Is there an Ereader-friendly version for the visually impaired? There’s more I’d like to see (why aren’t audio books more of a thing yet?), but those are some easy things publishers could think about now.

Content: Like Layout, I could dive deep into all the little questions I ask about content. But staying higher level, the first thing I do is compare the description of the contents from the backmatter or advertising (if it’s a PDF document, which often doesn’t have backmatter) to the actual content. Does the book deliver on the promises made in those two locations? If there is a disconnect, that can lead to disappointment from the reader. Disappointment which is usually expressed by not buying further books. Is the information presented useful to me as a GM/player? If this is a core rule book, or introduces new rules to an existing RPG, does the book present them in a way that is easy to follow and apply? Again, TTRPG books are a gaming resource, and if they don’t tell me how to play your game, why am I reading them?

A side-note on the subject matter itself. I’m not an expert on every little thing, and I don’t assume the publisher is either. So if the book is a sourcebook on a particular culture or community, especially if that culture or community is marginalized in our hobby, the two big questions I ask are: where did their information come from, and did the right person write this? Too often the answers I come back with are Google and no. “But Brent,” I hear you say, “Though I am a white male I have read extensively about Native American/Indigenous culture [as an example]. I didn’t just Google it, I must have read at least a dozen books on the subject. Surely I can now write a Native American sourcebook?” First of all, if you do write the sourcebook it should have a bibliography with those books listed. But second, no, you shouldn’t. No matter how many books you read, your acquired knowledge does not make you an expert on someone else’s lived experience. If you’re a publisher and you want a sourcebook that touches on a culture or lifestyle you have no first-hand knowledge of, reach out to someone in that community to write it. It’s not hard, it’s just harder than you’re used to.

Inclusivity: This is a lense I have on as I evaluate the product for everything else above. Basically, who I am seeing and hearing about as I read? Do they all look like me (straight, white, reasonably fit, male)? Are other members of our hobby able to see themselves in this book? Is there equity in the sexual presentation of the genders, ie, if women warriors are clad only in revealing clothing, are the men dressed similarly? If not, why not? Does the text use gender-neutral language rather than defaulting to masculine pronouns for everything?

These are just a sampling of the questions I ask myself when I’m reading the submissions for the ENnies. Depending on the book or item in question, I may have some deeper dive questions, or some of these questions may not get asked at all. When I’m making my selections for Best Cover, for instance, I’m not looking at much else beyond the cover, though everything I just talked about effects that decision.

I hope you found this peek into my process interesting. If you have questions or comments, feel free to drop them below or track me down on Twitter. And publishers, get your ENnies submissions in!